Bill Weber over at Slant Magazine calls the new Bond entry, Quantum of Solace, “almost like a feature-length epilogue to its predecessor.” While this assessment is largely meant negatively, I think it is an adequate way to interpret the film in a positive light. (Warning: spoilers throughout.)
Casino Royale was a virtual workshop in how to both make a rousing action flick and reboot a franchise. As a friend notes in his review, the producers went back to the basics, drawing heavily on the Bourne franchise as well as Batman Begins’ re-do of its hero. (We’ll see how JJ Abrams fares in his redux of Star Trek.)
The genius of Casino Royale was twofold: make Bond human, and give him an equal as sparring partner. As it turned out, the two were related, as the character of Vesper Lynd (played by Eva Green) brought out Bond’s humanity and was herself his equal. Furthermore, Bond was an upcoming cocky agent recently promoted, engaged in a daring operation, falling in love, saving the world. We can already hear the foretaste of the coming symphony’s themes in this glorious preamble.
But everything goes wrong! She betrays him — or not — and dies — because of him? — and we see the first integral part of Bond come to being before our eyes: self-interested, cold killer. No one other than himself; he is the job.
But now the cockiness is gone. The sharp dialogue, the charm, the fun — it died with his (possibly deceitful) love. How can he be the Bond we know if only half of the equation is filled out?
Enter part two.
I am sure many will and do share certain frustrations with Quantum, and I recognize some of them. The primary one for me was director Marc Forster’s obvious inexperience in handling action sequences, particularly the chases by car and on rooftop. Most everything was too zoomed in and too quickly cut; no geography, no money shots, just boom-boom-boom. Quick editing and a handheld camera does not a Bourne movie make. Paul Greengrass, for all his detractors, knows the ins and outs of his camerawork intimately, and for my money is a master.
That is the primary downside, though as a whole the action is still strong. The positives are numerous: the quality of the bad guy; the subversion of the Bond girl (they don’t sleep together and she fulfills her own mission!); the intersplicing of the interrogation scene with the horse race as well as the Quantum meeting with the opera; Mathis and Felix, especially the latter’s setup for a larger role in the series; the seriousness of the plot; and most of all, the honesty with which the writers, Forster, and Daniel Craig approach Bond as a character.
Bond is not merely “the mission” anymore; worse, he is vengeance. He can’t stop himself from killing everyone in his path, regardless of their innocence or the help they might provide. He is angry at Vesper, angry at Mr. White, angry at the whole conspiracy, angry at MI6, angry at himself. He is anger and he is death. No one-liners, no fun dialogue, no charm. Mostly silent, wholly cold-blooded revenge.
What faithfulness to a character arc!
Bourne is interesting as a semi-moral blank; he doesn’t kill for fun, he’s just trying to find himself, find his past.
Batman is interesting as a vengeance-spurning vigilante; his parents were killed, so he will use that rage to ensure others’ aren’t given the same treatment, while always eschewing execution.
James Bond is supposed to be interesting because of his debonair ability to, as the saying goes, make women want him and men want to be him.
Well, who wants to be this Bond? Silent assassin? Unsexual murderer? International vigilante wanted by his own government?
By the end of the film, Bond does make a choice. “I never left.” He chooses not to kill, he chooses unselfish information-gathering over the satisfaction of revenge. He hints at a smile as he walks away, and we are treated, finally, to the target circle “introduction” of Bond, James Bond, as he walks across the screen and shoots us, the audience, and the screen turns red as the theme begins.
Now we have our Bond. He may not be any more role model than before, but he is an honest character. The movie may not have fit our expectations for “Bond series entry #22,” but we know who this man is now. We know his story, his past, what has made him who he is. Now he is full, fully himself, prepared for the next steps in the road.
For that kind of honesty, that kind of storytelling, I am more than willing to accept whatever flaws Quantum of Solace might contain. Here’s to years more of the grounded, engaging, faithful character that is Daniel Craig’s James Bond.